a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

About two weeks ago I got an email from an AG-identified Lesbian from Jersey interested in conversion to Judaism. J asked a few questions, which I happily answered, but if you’re a queer person of color who converted to Judaism and have some pointers for J, please share them in the comments.

I’ve been following your blog for the last year in admiration and although late, I’d like to congratulate you on seeing your calling through to completion (or at least the conversion process through to completion as I don’t believe it ends there). Two weeks ago, I met with a Reform Rabbi discussing my interest in Judaism and last Friday I attended service for the first time. Outside of needing people of color the experience was awesome as they were very friendly and inviting. However is it strange that I left the service still wanting…now what am I wanting that’s still unclear. It would have been nice to see people wearing Kippot and Tallitot; it came across like a Catholic Mass. By no means should this be perceived as judgement as this was my first experience and I really didn’t know what to expect. Is it typical to only have Friday service and no Shabbat service on Saturday? I am not sure if they have morning and evening services during the week. I’ve been leaning towards attending a Conservative Synagogue however my concern is that being a black, aggressive lesbian could be an issue. You’ve mentioned in recent blogs that you’ve switched to a Conservative Synagogue. Can you speak on your experience? Do you attend Saturday services and weekday prayers? Do you wear a Kippah, Tallit or Tefillin? Do other woman wear them? How was the environment? Last, do you still feel as drawn to Judaism post-conversion or has the struggle changed things?

Thanks for reading and your thoughts,
J

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A Woman of Valor Who Can Find?

Posted on: June 1, 2014

Julie Geller’s version of Eishet Chayil is still my absolute favorite version of this ancient song traditionally sung by a husband (and sometimes children) to his wife to honor her role in the house. Because it comes from Torah verses, to say that it’s a bit archaic is putting it lightly. And while I absolutely love Julie’s version I really can’t imagine Mirs singing this to me and if I sang it to her, I think she might throw up her hands and run away from Jewish practice for good. (If you remember, my fiancee loves being a Jew, she just doesn’t need to do Jewish … until children, that was our agreement.) If Eishet Chayil makes it way to our big, gay, black &  Jewish Shabbat table it will be sung as a family and Julie’s version will be what we sing.

But babies are still painfully far away and for now the only Woman of Valor-ness happening in my life is this amazing project by a woman called Gracey Levine  from Portland who reached out to me. I get a lot of requests from people who read the blog and sadly, I can’t respond or help out with them all because of time commitments or people’s fascination with conversion as the only path towards multiracial, multi-ethnic Jewish experiences. So when Gracey simply asked to interview me for a project she’s doing portraying the lives of Jewish women of today I said yes and that I would help spread the word.

Gracey isn’t interested in exploiting Jewish women of Color, she’s not out there to ask us “how” we’re Jewish, she took a look at her project and realized that if she was going to portray Jewish women of today, that she would be remiss to not include Jewish women of Color.

Take a look at her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where you can find her planned travel itinerary. If she’s in a city near you, reach out to her and tell her I sent you.

Shavua Tov!

 

“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot — it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that, I try to make sure my experiences are positive.” — Maya Angelou

My first experience of Maya Angelou, who died this week at the age of 86, happened in high school. We weren’t required to read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in a literature class and my all-girl’s private Catholic school definitely didn’t have a Black History course. No, the first time I heard Maya Angelou’s words was out of the mouth of young black women about my age performing “Phenomenal Woman” at an event for the black social organization I was a member of, Jack and Jill. I’d definitely heard poems read and recited aloud, but this was the first time I felt the words of a poet come to life. We were in our teens, so the material was a bit mature, but the fact that the artist put her own spin on Ms. Angelou’s timeless words of black female empowerment and an awareness and pride of the female body left an impression on me.

As I watched quotes and memories of Ms. Angelou pepper my Facebook feed yesterday, it became clear that her words — honest, poignant and clearly evocative of her own experience — are also universal and have touched many generations of men and women from a variety of races, religions and cultural backgrounds. Born as Marguerite Johnson in April 1928, Maya Angelou is best known for her works of literature and her activism, though she was also a Tony-nominated actress, dancer and performer as well as a professor of American History at Wake Forest University.

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/199167/maya-angelou-my-sister-and-me/?#ixzz33CTVaK3I

I’m excited about this video for a lot of reasons. Yes, the fact that I shot and edited is one of the reasons. I am, by no means, a videographer and I’m actually quite pleased with how it turned out. The real reason I’m excited about it is because I’m excited about the work that JMN has done in the Jewish community for the past 17 years and I’m super excited about all of the amazing and wonderful things we have planned.

I hope you enjoy the video. Please share it far and wide and have a fabulous Shabbat!

Hello, readers!

The past month and two weeks have been really, really intense and full of a lot of seen an unforeseen challenges. It’s left me a bit shell shocked, but with a more clear and better appreciation for the things that matter most in life; like the people who truly care for me. I find that death, especially death for folks in their 20s and 30s, is a hard thing to navigate. As a woman in my  mid-thirties, I always assumed I’d mourn the passing of a parent before the passing of my sibling. It’s incredibly hard for me, and I’ve found that for some friends, dealing with me and this death is also hard. I’ve been shocked, disappointed and saddened by how hard it is for some people to relate to me like the “old Erika.” Of course, I’m not the old Erika and in some conversation I can’t help bringing up my sister’s death. And it has been my closest friends that have been able to hold space with me, listen to me, and try to understand my unimaginable and still very raw pain. I realized this weekend, sitting in the park with two women I consider good friends, that I’m too old to worry about people who don’t care for me.

So while I haven’t cleared the physical chametz in the way that we normally do, I’m using this season of new growth, new beginnings and freedom to clear the mental chametz in my life. The things, people, and toxic thoughts that occupy too much of my space and time.

Thankfully, we don’t keep gluten in our house, so we’ll not be eating chametz-y things, but at least for this year we won’t be hosting a seder and we didn’t do a floor-to-ceiling cleaning and I have to be okay with that.

I wish all of you an amazing Pesach!

 

#BlogExodus-10 Nissan; Leave

Posted on: April 10, 2014

#blogExodusI’m a little late to the game, but so excited about this project.

Leave: verb  1. go away from. 2. allow to remain.

It’s interesting that the two definitions of leave are opposites. Even more interesting as I think about where I am in my Jewish life. On one hand things will remain and on the other I am going away from parts.

For almost three years I’ve worked in Jewish non-profit. A choice I made soon after I converted to Judaism. I knew that the community that I converted in, while absolutely lovely, wasn’t my community. It was too far away for starters and as it turns out, I’m really not a Reform Jew, I’m a Conservative Jew. This realization took some time and I wanted to really live out my new religious values so I looked for a job in the world of Jewish non-profit.

It took a long time, much longer than I anticipated. I was jobless and on SNAP benefits and unemployment insurance before being offered a temporary position at a large Jewish non-profit. It was there that I got my feet wet, met an amazing group of inspirational women (yes, all women). That job served as a stepping stone for the job I’ve had for the past two years at a mid-sized Jewish non-profit. Yet, because of budget woes I, once again, find myself facing unemployment and I had a choice to make. To stay in the Jewish non-profit world or to leave it.

There are many things that I’ve gleaned from the world of Jewish non-profit; an appreciation for hard work, the ability to make amazing things happen with small budgets, amazing friends I hope to keep for my life, and a deeper appreciation for Judaism. In my current positions we’d have discussions as varied as whether or not placenta is kosher (it is according the the rabbis in our office) and whether or not women should don tefillin. Speakers have come to discuss the true nature of original Zionism (turns out I’m an original Zionist) and how non-profits can use social media to impact mission. Not to mention actual Torah and Talmud study on lunch breaks and taking an hour break to learn Hebrew with a colleague. It’s been truly wonderful and truly magical and it’s helped me to realize that I don’t necessarily need to work in the Jewish non-profit world to make an impact in the Jewish community.

I’ve joined the Board of the Jewish Multiracial Network (you should follow us on Twitter and Facebook) and have been working hard to create lasting changes for the full inclusion of Jews of Color in Jewish communities since joining the board. It’s a mission that I’m passionate about, it’s been another part-time job (albeit unpaid) and it’s the most fulfilled that I’ve felt in a really long time.  It begs the question, is it time to leave the Jewish community in this capacity?

The honest answer is that I’m not sure. There’s so much I love about it, and let’s be honest-having days off for chaggim is amazing. We’ll see and only time will tell. I’ve applied for a few awesome jobs, but I’ve left it to G-d.

 

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

 

Photo by Keith W. Medley

Photo by Keith W. Medley

This was originally posted on Brassy Brown.

December of 2013 found me in San Diego, California this year, attending the fiftieth Biennial of the Women of Reform Judaism. Although, this was the organization’s centennial, WRJ actually began at my synagogue in 1900 as “the Sisterhood”, the name still used by most members. When I look at our official history, I find that the Sisterhood began as a ladies auxiliary. In 1900, they took on the task of selecting the furnishings for the synagogue and maintaining the new synagogue building. In later years, they did everything from comforting the sick, funding the purchase of an organ, preparing holiday synagogue meals, and sponsoring scholarships at the rabbinical college in Cincinnati. WRJ, The Sisterhood, is still the critical heart of the synagogue. They ensure that things get done. The President of each synagogue chapter is responsible for representing the chapter on the synagogue board and responsible for defining what tasks the chapter will accept.

This was my third biennial but my first as the President of my synagogue chapter. Each time that I’ve attended these national gatherings, there are more jews of color (JOC) participants than the prior time. I attended many small panel discussions where I was the only non-white woman in the room, but when I attended the group discussions with more than one hundred attendees that was never the case. Many of our blended identities were present, from Jewish and African-American, Jewish and Asian-American, Jewish and Latina, et. al. While I was there to find out how to increase membership in my own synagogue Sisterhood, I was interested to listen as the hierarchy of both the women’s organization and the Reform movement wrestled with the recognition of the diversity of Reform Judaism and jewish life in general. I see evidence of that struggle in my life in New Orleans.

For example, I sat in one seminar where the Rabbi was describing the development of the synagogue itself. The synagogue as an assembly may have begun during the Babylonian exile, but he traced the growth of synagogues as edifices to Napoleon: the creator of French identity. He turned to the Jews of France and asked: Is Judaism a religion? Or are Jews a people? If Jews were a people, then he was prepared to expel them. If they were merely Frenchmen practicing a different religion, they could stay. Very quickly, the Jews of France decided that they were practicing a religion. This was the pattern established across western Europe. According to the Rabbi, the Jews of eastern Europe were not offered this choice; they maintained their cultural definition that Jews are a people. (For example, it was not until 1997 that Russian identity papers eliminated “Jewish” as the nationality of Russian jews.) The stage was now set for the migration to the United States. The Jews of the West became Americans and adopted the practices of their new country. They built Jewish houses of worship and emulated their neighbors. They became Americans first and Jews second. The Jews of the East also became Americans, but the cultural identity of Jewish remained central to their character. (And yes—this is a vast simplification.) My synagogue was founded by western Jews, therefore, of course, a Black woman could become president of her synagogue’s women’s group. Via JMN, Jewish Multiracial Network, I know of at least two Black Rabbis, one Rabbi in training and numerous other Jews of color in the U.S.

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07.01.82-03.06.14

Posted on: April 3, 2014

Patrice2My sister’s obituary

Patrice M. Davis was born on July 1, 1982, to Vince and Pathy Davis in Toledo, Ohio. She showed a love for art at a young age. Her parents encouraged her passion for the arts by enrolling her in the Young Artist at Work Program. Her medium was sculpting, ceramics and fine art. Ms. Davis attended Notre Dame Academy and graduated from Springfield High School. After high school she attended the University of Toledo. Her major at the University was Fine Arts. Patrice returned as a teacher to the Young Artist at Work Program and taught at the Boys and Girls Club of Toledo. As an artist she was on display at The Toledo Museum of Art and other fine art galleries around the city of Toledo.

She leaves to cherish her memory parents, Vince and Pathy Davis; sons, Jullian, Justice and Jacob Davis; sister, Erika Davis; uncle, Michael Davis Sr.; aunts, Shawana Davis; cousins, Kimberly Davis-Stewart, Tammy Davis, Vanessa Fenner, Kenny Davis, Kevin Davis, Amber Davis, Michael, Davis Jr., Gabrielle Davis, Tawaan Davis, Shane Davis, Shaquana Valentine and numerous other relatives.

The family invites you to celebrate the memory of Patrice at the Braden United Methodist Church, 4725 Dorr St, Toledo, OH 43615, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 9, 2014. The repast will be held from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Braden. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you send a monetary contribution for her son’s scholarship funds. Checks can be made out to State Farm Insurance, 3344 Secor Rd., Suite A102 Toledo, Ohio 43606.

patrice and I

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Shloshim

Posted on: March 17, 2014

On Thursday, March 6th my only sibling, my younger sister passed away. She was 31 years old. She leaves behind her three little boys, our parents and me, her big sister.

We had a memorial service for her on the Sunday directly following her death, which was inline with Jewish tradition of burial in 3 days, though it was her request to be cremated. I spent the next week with my family and have just returned to NYC where things are…difficult to say the least.

Friends have offered to sit Shivah with/for me here in NYC and I honestly don’t think I can do that, so instead I’m observing aspects of Shloshim. I will also be pausing in blogging for the rest of the Shloshim period.

I ask that you keep my family in your prayers.

 

Post-Racial My Ass

Posted on: February 25, 2014

This morning I browsed the New York Times on my phone while waiting for my rather late train, “Colorblind Notion Aside, Colleges Grapple with Racial Tensions”.  I read the title and was immediately angry and frustrated, I thought the term “Colorblind” went out of vogue 10 years ago.

In the news media and in popular culture, the notion persists that millennials — born after the overt racial debates and divisions that shaped their parents’ lives — are growing up in a colorblind society in which interracial friendships and marriages are commonplace and racism is largely a relic.

But interviews with dozens of students, professors and administrators at the University of Michigan and elsewhere indicate that the reality is far more complicated, and that racial tensions are playing out in new ways among young adults.

Some experts say the concept of being “postracial” can mean replicating some of the divisions and insensitivity of the past, perhaps more from ignorance than from animus. Others find offensive the idea of a society that strips away deeply personal beliefs surrounding self-identification.

When you say that you’re “color blind” what you’re really saying is that you have the ability, because of your privilege, to erase someone else’s race. News flash, you can see my black skin. You can see that brown skin of the group of guys walking down the street (which is why you walked on the other side). You notice when the person doing your nails is a different race than you. You hear people speaking in languages other than your “norm”. You know when you’re the only X-person in a group of X-people and if you’re a person of color in a Jewish space, you notice that too (and so does everyone else). The same goes for the idea of our society being “post-racial” until we live in a a society where being white is no longer the norm, we’re never going to be “post-racial“. To imply that racial tensions are playing out in “new ways” is, in my experience, completely inaccurate. Sure, I never had to sit at the back of the bus, but it doesn’t mean that racism in our society, in the year 2014, has somehow disappeared.

It’s been my experience that children are keenly aware of race and color, I’ll give you an example. A few years back I spoke at a diversity retreat at Be’chol Lashon. I held a black child, adopted from Ethiopia by two white Jewish parents, in my arms. We had an immediate and special bond and after lunch one day she took my hand into hers and examined it. She held it up with both of her little girl hands, flipped it over and examined my palms and the brown lines in them. She flipped it over again, examining my skin, stroking it in a curious, soft way before bringing her big brown eyes to mine. “Your skin is like mine,” she said to me and my heart was pulled in a million directions. I wondered if she’d be able to have open conversations about race and ethnicity with her parents. I wondered if her extended family acknowledge or ignored her skin color. I wondered how she would feel and identify as an child, a teenager, as an adult. I wondered if the Jewish community she was in would accept and nurture her or if she would feel alienated by her Jewish community because of the color of her skin.

I’ll give you another example. I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeating. When I was converting to Judaism I arrived to my conversion class early and sat on a big, leather Chesterfield sofa outside of the room we had class. Inside, the room was occupied by students who appeared to be no older than 13 years old. I read a book and sat, but one student noticed me. I noticed him noticing me because his voice became louder than the murmurs of the others. “Hey! Someone’s babysitter is outside.” I felt myself get angry when he said this, and felt like a kid again as 12 pairs of eyes turned to look at me and my heart was also pulled in a million directions. What was this kid’s perception of race? What’s his perception of people of color and how does he perceive his Jewish community. Could I ever be accepted into the Jewish community if a Jewish child only sees me as the help?

People often send me emails or leave comments on posts I write accusing me of being racist, or too sensitive or creating an exaggeration of the issues of race and racism in the Jewish community, but I ask, given those two experiences, can we honestly say that the Jewish community is immune to racial tensions or racism?

The answer to that question is no.

No one is immune- no community, no individual, no religion-we all have issues with race and racism because as a society we have placed so much value into what it is to be white (and for society at large we could argue male and Anglo-Saxon) which therefore invalidates and belittles the value of other races and ethnicities. As much as I’d like to say that the NYT article was shocking, it wasn’t. This is the world that we live in and we really have a few choices: We can live our lives appreciating, learning from, caring about and acknowledging diversity for what it is (and diversity is awesome) or we can live our lives in our own individual worlds, segregating and separating ourselves from people who are different from us. We can teach our children about inclusion and live our lives surrounded by a variety of races, religions and ethnicities or we can teach our children by example, only exposing them to people who share their race, religion and ethnic background.

As Jews, we have an obligation to take a look at our communities and make internal assessments, are we living our mission statements or are they empty words on our websites. As individuals we have the responsibility to live our truths while allowing others to live their individual truths. And as a society we have to find a way to hold on another up rather than using them to step on. That last bit seems a bit far-fetched, but my thought is that mellinnals aren’t post-racial because they see interracial marriages and have interracial friendships, but because they are more willing (or hopefully so) to speak out on bullshit and hopefully the desire to make the changes necessary in our society. Not to end on a Mr. Rogers note, but it’s all of our jobs.

 

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